Design a site like this with
Get started

“Digging into History: The 1986 Strike”, by John Mountain, Vol. 1 No. 11 (November, 2019)

These first few blog posts are backdated issues of John Mountain’s historical newsletter “Digging into History”. As of March 2020, John had been working on sorting the collection for over a year and a half, publishing a newsletter every month detailing his findings.

The 1986 Strike – As many IWA members are digging in for a long strike against Western Forest Products, I thought it might be appropriate to look back at the 1986 strike. The strike was primarily about the Industry’s demand to be able to contracting out union jobs and it was not the first time the Industry had proposed it.

The IWA’s first battle against contracting out came in Northern Ontario in late 1978 when the Industry wanted to introduce owner-operators into the unionized logging industry. Contracting out raised its ugly head for the second time in 1986 here on the BC coast and it was an issue again on the coast for a third time in 2004 when Don Munroe’s Woodlands Letter was forced upon the union under binding mediation.

Now in 2019, contracting out is again an Industry demand in negotiations and union members – as United Steelworkers – are in a battle to preserve a fundamental issue of union rights and security.  Interestingly, it was in 1986 that the Industry came to the bargaining table demanding myriad concessions from the union which looking back from 2019, it seems to deja-vu all over again.

The IWA published a history book about their union in 2000 under the title “The IWA in Canada” which was authored by Andrew Neufeld and Andy Parnaby. The book provides a thought-provoking overview of the 1986 strike; the reasons for it, and what lead up to the resolution. I have provided a slightly condensed version of their words here below.

Contracting Out, Round Two, from Andrew Neufeld and Andy Parnaby, The IWA in Canada (New Star Books, 2000).

In 1983, the IWA had settled for a modest three-year contract with minimal gains. Jack Munro described the 1983 contract as “a lousy deal for us, for sure, but we’d honestly felt that it was our social responsibility to help the industry, the province and the country through the tough times.” Unfortunately, employers did not share the same benevolent view when it came to dealing with the workers who created their wealth.

For the IWA, the employers’ practice of contracting out work to non-union workers had been a growing problem for years. Beginning in the 1950s, a series of arbitration rulings legitimizing the practice had chipped away at one of the cornerstones of every union’s security: the right to maintain a union shop. “From the beginning,” said IWA historian Clay Perry, “we have acknowledged that there are instances where contracting out was the only solution to a particular problem. But the past 30 years have proven beyond reasonable doubt that the employer will, if given the opportunity, use those limited practical instances as a foot in the door.”

By 1986, it was apparent to the IWA that fundamental trade union principles, not to mention the well-being of the union and its members, were at stake. Delegates to that year’s Wages and Contract Conference unanimously agreed that pension improvements and protection from contracting out would be the first priorities in negotiations.

The employers badly misjudged the mood of the IWA as negotiations began. Believing they held the upper hand after the upheavals of the recession, the employers came to the bargaining table on 12 May 1986 demanding myriad concessions from IWA members. The session quickly deteriorated as the union rejected the employers’ demands in no uncertain terms.

On 19 June, a province-wide strike vote was called. Over the next three weeks, 31,000 Coast and Interior workers voted 89 percent in favour of strike action in the event negotiations failed. A strike date of 21 July was set, but job action began on 15 July at MacMillan Bloedel’s Sproat Lake operation near Port Alberni, where 130 loggers downed their tools after two IWA drivers were replaced by independent haulers. Four MacMillan Bloedel logging divisions were joined by Alberni plywood workers in the walkout and by 21 July, 1,050 workers were off the job.

Two days later, 12,000 IWA members were on strike across the province in a series of strategic pickets – a selective strike. The union did not want to shut down the entire province, and occasionally this created frustration as picketing members held the fort at their worksites while other IWA members went to work. But the importance of the contracting out issue was well understood by IWA members and whatever frustrations that existed were insignificant when compared to the grassroots sense of solidarity growing among union members.

The selective strike strategy allowed the union to target those major forest industry firms that were the worst exploiters of the contracting out system. As well, it left the union some room to negotiate agreements with companies that accepted the IWA’s stance on the issue.

By August, 18,000 IWA members had hit the bricks. Several firms on the Coast were starting to crack, and Doman Industries, a smaller company based in Duncan, agreed to a no contracting out deal with the union. A Doman executive said he would rather pull out of Forest Industrial Relations (FIR), the employers’ negotiating body, than break his contract with the IWA. Several more firms followed Doman’s lead and reached agreements with the union over the next days. When the LRB ruled that the Doman Industries agreement was not valid, both the IWA and Doman announced they would honour their deal in spite of the LRB decision. By the end of August, several firms in the north had also settled with the union.

On 2 September, Justice Henry Hutcheon was appointed to sit down with both sides and try to broker a settlement. When Hutcheon’s report sided with the IWA on the issue of contracting out, the employers rejected it, and the situation was once again at a stalemate. Worse, the IWA strike fund was running perilously low. The union’s worries were short-lived however as the labour movement across the country rallied to support the IWA – the CLC donated $1 million, as did the British Columbia Government Employees Union. Numerous other unions, pensioners, and working members all made substantial contributions to the strike fund.

At the end of September, 20,000 IWA members were still on strike. The union was paying $800,000 per day in strike pay and negotiations were going nowhere. A three-member commission led by former IWAer Stuart Hodgson was appointed to review the issues and make recommendations. The Hodgson Commission’s recommendations were released on 25 November and did little to appease the union. Hodgson’s key recommendation was that the industry be allowed to contract out at existing levels. Not surprisingly, his report was met with universal scorn by IWA members. On December 3rd, a vote taken by IWA members on whether to settle the strike on the terms of the Hodgson report was rejected by a margin of over 90 percent, higher than the margin of the original strike vote.

The strike escalated as more and more union members walked off the job in early December. In Ladysmith, Local 1-80 members defied a court injunction and picketed Schon Timber in a powerful show of union solidarity. In order to evade union pickets and keep its operations running, MacMillan Bloedel was using Schon Timber, a non-union operation, to remove logs from the water and then ship them via rail to the company’s pulp mill in Port Alberni. IWA members rallied 300 to 800 people to stop this dodge with picket lines that grew bigger by the day, despite court injunctions ordering the picketing to cease. Bob Blanchard referred to the Schon Timber episode as the single most significant event of the strike, which convinced the employers they could not win and helped produce the final settlement shortly thereafter. Indeed, the Schon Timber pickets and the IWA members’ overwhelming rejection of the Hodgson report made it clear to employers the IWA would not back down in its fight for union security.

Rather than continue to butt heads with the employers represented by FIR, Roger Stanyer, president of the Duncan local, suggested the union try to reach a contract agreement with employers represented by the Truck Loggers’ Association. This association of independent logging contractors was responsible for 50 percent of the logging that occurred on the coast. The IWA and the Truck Loggers reached a tentative agreement, and the IWA asked the Truck Loggers to approach FIR, hoping to extend their settlement.

On December 5th, after 107 days on the picket lines, the strike was settled on the IWA’s terms, with a letter of understanding that prohibited the contracting out of IWA members’ work. A 40-cent wage increase was won, taking the base rate to $14.08 per hour, and IWA members were now entitled to full pension benefits at age 60. The Globe and Mail’s headline on the settlement story read “IWA Wins Big.”

The 1986 strike was a historic struggle. Not since the 1953 Interior strike had the union fought such an intense battle to establish a fundamental issue of union rights and security. Prince George Local 1-424 president Frank Everett said, “Job security is something members have been looking for for 30 years. It’s what the whole thing was about.” The strike also galvanized rank-and-file membership support of the union. “Probably the most important thing we gained or learned was that when the existence of the union is threatened and it’s obvious to the membership, there is no limit to the length the membership will go to save it,” said Bill Schumaker, president of Kelowna Local 1-423.

“Collectively, the IWA as an organization emerged from the strike as a fine example of what a trade union should be,” commented Gary Kobayashi of Local 1-217. “The will of the membership has always been the legitimizing force in the IWA, and in the 1986 strike this will was the difference between resounding victory and humiliating defeat.”

More than $2 billion in wages was lost over the course of the strike, and the IWA paid out over $17 million in strike pay. Over $10 million was loaned to the IWA by other trade unions on good faith. In the spring of 1987, IWA members voted 80 percent in favour of a $5 per day assessment to repay the loans. After three and a half months, the entire amount had been repaid. For all the success of the strike, it was also a hardship for the entire IWA.

Many members struggled financially, and many suffered personal and family difficulties from the stress of a prolonged strike. Consistent with its ideals of democratic trade unionism, IWA officers were required to subsist on the same strike pay that the rank and file lived on. Reflecting on the 1986 strike, Jack Munro summed up the feelings of most IWA members when he said, “I hope things never get that bad again.”


The IWA Salutes the Past – Challenges the Future

BC Lumberworker Vol. XXXIV, No.1 – January 1971      Editor: Pat Kerr

1950 – At the 13th Annual District Convention in Nanaimo on January 6-7-8, 1950, the officers were able to report “striking and gratifying progress.”

“Complete control of the Union has been returned to the rank and file membership.”

The Loggers’ Navy had been recovered for Local 1-71, it was reported. The sum of $130,032.55 had been recovered from the LPP defaulters, but with court costs amounting to $16,000 plus $3,000 in unpaid debts of the former officers.

Negotiations were carried to a Conciliation Board, with Dr. Eugene Forsey as the Union’s nominee.

The settlement in 1950 gained a wage increase of 12¼¢ an hour, bringing the base rate up to $1.20½ an hour. The 40-hour week was firmly established in the contract, with time and one-half for all overtime. Maintenance of membership was made a condition of employment.

1951 – Negotiations in 1951 took an unusual course where the operators’ representatives made an offer early in the year and settlement was reached by direct negotiations.

The wage increase amounted to nine cents an hour, setting the base rate at $1.291/2. A series of differential increases adjusted category rates with fallers and buckers gaining $1.00 a day increase, shingle sawyers 4 cents per square, shingle packers 3 cents per square, and sawmill graders an additional 3 cents an hour.

A cost of living bonus was provided in an escalator clause — 1 cent per hour for every rise in the Cost-of-Living of 1.3 points; vacation pay was fixed at 2½ percent up to five years’ service, and 5 percent for over five years’ service.

The cost of living bonus brought a wage increase of 11 cents an hour before the end of the year.

A seven-week strike at Quesnel in Western Plywoods won settlement which established the same base rate as was then in effect at the coast. Local 1-217 fought and won a seven-week strike at Lama Wood Products in the same year.

During the latter part of the year, the Union made an all-out attempt to wipe out the differential between Interior and Coast wages and negotiations were rough. At one stage, the operators made an offer accepted in good faith for transmission to the membership. At the last moment the Union was suddenly “double crossed” by a withdrawal of the offer, as the operators started dickering with the Woodworkers Industrial Union of Canada (WIUC) at Cranbrook.

When the Interior operators rejected an award of the Conciliation Board, the Interior membership voted 67 percent for strike action. Mediator Fred Smelts brought the parties together, and the IWA agreed to a settlement which gained a wage increase of 20 cents an hour, establishing the Interior base rate at $1.30 an hour. The cost-of-living bonus was also included in the contract. Two weeks’ vacation with pay was won together with substantial category revisions and night shift differentials.

Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll cover off the 1952 when Local 1-80 President Tony Poje is sentenced to three months in Oakalla Prison, and 1953 when Joe Morris is elected IWA District President. Thanks to the BC Lumber worker for this excerpts.

I’m so glad to be playing a part in preserving the history of the IWA. If my story on the 1986 strike finds you wanting more, I urge you to contact staff at the Kaatza Museum for more information. Next time in Digging Into History, I’ll take another deep dive into the archives and share some more interesting stories.

Until next time,    John

John Mountain is a retired United Steelworkers Canadian National Office Staff Representative and former IWA Local 1-80 Union Member. He lives in Chemainus and volunteers some of his time at the Kaatza Museum in Lake Cowichan.

One thought on ““Digging into History: The 1986 Strike”, by John Mountain, Vol. 1 No. 11 (November, 2019)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: